Justice in Proverbs

Proverbs shares many themes with the Psalms when it comes to justice. The main difference is that more of is aimed toward those who do have some wealth or at least are not in danger of death due to extreme poverty. In other words, most of its target audience are the same class as the majority of people who would be reading this blog. The book is presented as “wisdom” which could be defined largely as the behavioral guidelines for living justly. As with Psalms, I’ll only do a quick sampling of some of its texts and themes here.

Everybody Equal

2 The rich and the poor
are all created
by the Lord. (22:2 CEV)

This simple guideline goes a remarkably long way. No matter your social position – welcome in the mainstream or outcast for any number of reasons – you are equal before God. This ties in perfectly with the creation account’s claim that every single one of us is made in the image of God.

Because of this, oppressors and mockers of the poor harm not just those people but also insult God:

31 If you mistreat the poor,
you insult your Creator;
if you are kind to them,
you show him respect. (14:31)

5 By insulting the poor,
you insult your Creator.
You will be punished
if you make fun
of someone in trouble. (17:5)

The Righteous and the Unrighteous

Proverbs also gives us descriptions of the righteous as opposed to the unrighteous oppressors. The righteous are concerned with justice, they are generous (22:9), they know the rights of the poor (29:7) and how to defend them, they open their hands to the poor and reach out to the needy (31:20). Rulers are tasked with the mission of speaking out, judging righteously, and defending the rights of the poor and needy (31:9).

The wicked or unrighteous have no understanding of the rights of the poor (29:7). A King who oppresses his people is like a beating rain that leaves no food (28:3), akin to a natural disaster. This wicked ruler is also called a predator (28:15).

Forgetting Their Troubles

Here’s a particularly interesting text:

4 Kings and leaders
should not get drunk
or even want to drink.
5 Drinking makes you forget
your responsibilities,
and you mistreat the poor.
6 Beer and wine are only
for the dying
or for those
who have lost all hope.
7 Let them drink
and forget
how poor and miserable
they feel.
8 But you must defend
those who are helpless
and have no hope.
9 Be fair and give justice
to the poor and homeless. (31:4-9)

This is opposite of how we usually think now. Many are even afraid to give money to poor people because we just assume they’ll use it for alcohol or drugs, even though statistically you’re more likely to be an alcoholic and equally likely to be using illegal drugs if you’re rich.

I’m not suggesting we take the specific advice literally, even though the logic does make a lot of sense, mainly because we often have better ways to help the poor forget their troubles. Getting them out of the cold for a while helps them forget. Buying them healthy food helps them forget. Giving them clothes helps them forget. Being friends with them is probably the best way of all to help them forget. Plus if you help them forget enough, eventually they won’t have nearly so many problems that they need to forget.

Economic Equality = Happiness for All

We also see that wealth and poverty both have their dangers:

8 Make me absolutely honest
and don’t let me be too poor
or too rich.
Give me just what I need.
9 If I have too much to eat,
I might forget about you;
if I don’t have enough,
I might steal
and disgrace your name. (30:8-9)

Note: some Christian traditions encourage voluntary poverty as a special calling for some. This isn’t the same thing. With voluntary poverty you have chosen to surrender your wealth for the good of others and you can generally leave whenever you want. It is not the same desperation for survival discussed in that text.

Interestingly, repeated research has backed up this principle, consistently finding that you are most happy – satisfied with the lives – when you can provide for basic needs without fear (food, shelter) but don’t get any happier for having wealth beyond that. Having a sports car doesn’t make you any happier. Having a big house doesn’t. Having the new gaming console on the biggest and best TV doesn’t. Those things are not wrong in and of themselves, but we need to be free of the myth that they will make us happier.

If we wanted to maximize happiness for the world, most in Canada realistically could give a lot of their possessions and wouldn’t even take a hit to their own happiness. We may even become more happy thanks to the greater simplicity of their lives.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.